The American Dream

“A study of the USA in the C20th shows the American dream is a myth”

America was seen to have emerged during the twentieth century as a prominent force of economic power. It seemed to have freedom, individual liberty and accomplishment all encompassed under this idea of ‘The American Dream’. The idea of the American dream embodied freedom and equality and that everyone should be offered the opportunity of becoming rich and successful if they worked hard enough. As said by American writer, James Truslow Adams, ‘life should be better, richer and fuller for everyone with the opportunity for each’. The nature of America as a country embraced endless opportunities for the use of land, and culture as a result of immigration. The goal was success and opportunity- Jennifer L. Hochschild states that ‘The American dream consists of tenets about achieving success’ Success played a focal role in the layout of the American dream, in more negative ways than positive. The idea of success was warped through the ideology of a capitalist society alongside traditional societal views of family and culture. The American dream in its essence was no more than an ideal as opposed to reality. It carried fundamental flaws and contradictions that prioritised oppression and legislation over equality, to the point where the full achievement of the American dream was almost unattainable to reach.

During the 1920s the American dream bridged heavily on society through the economy, politics and popular culture. The 20s saw an increase in prosperity due to factors such as a larger population of 106.4 million with a considerable amount of purchasing power. In addition to that, there was the aftermath of the First World War with many other countries in a state of bankruptcy meaning loans and reparations that countries owed America, and a stream technological progress that was shown through ‘Fordism’ paving the way for industrial and management developments. The twenties highlighted the American dream in the light of consumerism and materialism as a meter of success. This new liberal era impacted mass enlightenment from the jazz age to the sexual revolution. The American dream was not only attainable from an economic standpoint but from the personal view of individual lives. Harold Evans states in ‘The American Century’; ‘such was the exuberance of the people, manifested in spectacular bursts of invention and productivity’ Due to this significant influx in prosperity, the Wall Street crash leading to the great depression took a heavy toll on the socioeconomic condition of America. The great depression under Hoover’s government faced many trials that extinguished a sense of hope in the American dream that t was once found during the age of prosperity. Many of Hoover’s policies were either implemented too late or they were too short term. The great depression marked a key adjustment to what American citizens perceived the American dream to be. It showcased how the idea of an ‘American dream’ was not as simple as what materialism and consumerism offered. It weakened this idea of success that Hochschild speaks about, highlighting how success was not always in the hands of the American population.

A drastic transformation needed to be made, and subsequently due to this Roosevelt came into the presidency and launched ‘The New Deal’ between 1933-41. Historians would mark Roosevelts New Deal as a crucial turning point to the welfare of America from not only an economic standpoint but a social one. Roosevelt’s main aims through the new deal were to aid victims that were exposed to the detrimental consequences of the great depression. Millions faced unemployment, hunger, and poverty. A reformation of the economic system was a necessary component to revive America from its downfall, and to further revive America of its ideal of the American dream. Roosevelt implemented much of his new deal legislation within the first three months of his presidency, this showcased not only his efficiency but his readiness to immediately reform the economy. Roosevelts most successful policies were that of his ‘alphabet’ agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) which helped the poor, providing them with basic necessities such as food and clothing, and the Public Works Administration (PWA) which created jobs by paying unemployed people build schools, bridges, and works. These are just two examples of how the new deal carried out major reforms to revitalise the population from the depression. This sense of hope can be seen to instill sentiments of the American dream, the new plan showcases how the economy picked back up to make the American dream accessible once again. The new deal is an example of how the government stepped away from laissez-faire as an ideal and stepped in to help the population. One may argue that this lessens the ability for the American dream to be implemented to its fullest, due to the fact that government interference lessens independence and flexibility within society, and an element of dependence can start to form. This was a significant criticism that came from Republicans at the time, especially during the 1930s as an anti-communist sentiment was beginning to develop. E.J Dionne states in her article on practical Liberalism that; the new deal was a ‘broadly humanistic movement to make man’s life on earth more tolerable’. And this is what many saw it as. The new deal restored the confidence to American companies and its citizens, paving the way for a climate of hopeful change and development.  

The economic factors that contributed towards the idea of the American dream were significant, yet they were not as significant as the civil rights movement that spread across all sectors of society, from race, sexual orientation, and gender. The civil rights movement signifies the struggle for achievement and success due to the oppression and constraints set by society and the government. A key factor that the civil rights movement propelled was racial inequality. Segregation had been a standard way of living within most states. The changes to discrimination started off with desegregation, a key example being the Brown versus Topeka Board of Education case. In this case, the NAACP won a major supreme court ruling that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, this was a major development that created more of a sense of hope for full equality, yet at the same time caused more friction with southern states. The southern white power structure showcases key attitudes against the movement that hindered its progress and subsequently hindered the achievement of the American dream. It highlights how one of the focal opponents to the civil rights movement was legislation. The government as a structural opponent was harder to break through, as opposed to public opinion that altered through the period of the 50s. Peaceful protest, as promoted by Marin Luther King was significant in public perception of the civil rights movement. Aldon D. Morris states that ‘wide-scale black protest…stood a good chance of exposing the contradiction between racism and democracy’ This contradiction is especially prevalent due to the fact that the American dream was an ideal revolving around the nature of the government and the constitution. The advances in the civil rights movement carried on under Kennedy and Brown, and in 1964 a civil rights act was implemented. This was shortly after Kennedy’s proposal of the New Frontier, where a wave of civil rights campaigns was at its height. The civil rights act of 1964 marked the breakthrough of equality through the force of the government, however, this did not extinguish social perceptions and behaviour. There was a divide between the opportunities that black people and other minorities could receive. The civil rights movement was a positive step towards equality, yet not transformational to the treatment and viewing of the black community. The civil rights movement played a pivotal role in a generational stream of movements, which, as said by Morris, ‘crystallised’ the United States in its constitutional development. The Civil rights act was paramount in this regard for it prohibited a wide array of discrimination, yet it did not destroy them. The American dream, which conveyed the idea of success to anyone was emphasised as mere fiction to those from minority groups when assessing the effects of the movement from a long-term perspective. It cemented the view that development would take a much longer time.

and gender. The civil rights movement signifies the struggle for achievement and success due to the oppression and constraints set by society and the government. A key factor that the civil rights movement propelled was racial inequality. Segregation had been a standard way of living within most states. The changes to discrimination started off with desegregation, a key example being the Brown versus Topeka Board of Education case. In this case, the NAACP won a major supreme court ruling that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, this was a major development that created more of a sense of hope for full equality, yet at the same time caused more friction with southern states. The southern white power structure showcases key attitudes against the movement that hindered its progress and subsequently hindered the achievement of the American dream. It highlights how one of the focal opponents to the civil rights movement was legislation. The government as a structural opponent was harder to break through, as opposed to public opinion that altered through the period of the 50s. Peaceful protest, as promoted by Marin Luther King was significant in public perception of the civil rights movement. Aldon D. Morris states that ‘wide-scale black protest…stood a good chance of exposing the contradiction between racism and democracy’ This contradiction is especially prevalent due to the fact that the American dream was an ideal revolving around the nature of the government and the constitution. The advances in the civil rights movement carried on under Kennedy and Brown, and in 1964 a civil rights act was implemented. This was shortly after Kennedy’s proposal of the New Frontier, where a wave of civil rights campaigns was at its height. The civil rights act of 1964 marked the breakthrough of equality through the force of the government, however, this did not extinguish social perceptions and behaviour. There was a divide between the opportunities that black people and other minorities could receive. The civil rights movement was a positive step towards equality, yet not transformational to the treatment and viewing of the black community. The civil rights movement played a pivotal role in a generational stream of movements, which, as said by Morris, ‘crystallised’ the United States in its constitutional development. The Civil rights act was paramount in this regard for it prohibited a wide array of discrimination, yet it did not destroy them. The American dream, which conveyed the idea of success to anyone was emphasised as mere fiction to those from minority groups when assessing the effects of the movement from a long-term perspective. It cemented the view that development would take a much longer time.

The American dream and all that it offered was shown to be a myth in the c20th. It offered some element of hope from an economic standpoint, yet it could not be a full development if it did not encompass all elements of society. Under the harsh reality of a capitalist society that constantly thrives through competition and hierarchy it was shown to be unrealistic. The American dream did not offer ‘opportunity for each’ and could only be directed to a certain group in society that fit the criteria of privilege as shown through the struggle for civil rights and more specifically, racial equality. The American dream was only a myth that society revolved around but could not live by.

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